MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
What's worse than being a graduate with lots of student loan debt? Having lots of student loans and no degree. More than 40 percent of millennials who describe themselves as having some college have such debt. Without the increased earnings they could make with a degree, it's that much harder to pay off even just a few thousand dollars in loans. NPR's a Selena Simmons-Duffin has this report for our series on millennials, New Boom.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: An unfinished bachelor's degree can affect pretty much every aspect of your life. Let me introduce you to two people.
NOELLE JOHNSON: My name is Noelle Johnson. I'm 27 and I live in Manassas, Virginia.
JOHNSON: My name is Noelle Johnson.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: OK, they're the same person, but one is real-life Noelle with student loans and no degree and the other is...
JOHNSON: In this alternate Noelle universe.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Where she knocked out her degree in four years. So let's compare them. Present-day real-life Noelle is an office administrator at a nonprofit, a salaried job.
JOHNSON: I think that I'm stuck between 40 and 45.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She works in the D.C. area, where incomes are higher. The national average is 31,000 for people with some college. If she had a B.A...
JOHNSON: I think I would be at a manager level. I would be making more money.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She would. Young college grads make 58,000 a year, on average. At the lower pay grade, she has to live a long way from work. Her commute is an hour-and-a-half by bus and train each way. With a B.A., making more money...
JOHNSON: I would be living some place that was closer to work, that I'd be able to afford.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She'd be able to shop at farmer's markets and treat her sister to dinner for once. Instead of hustling for babysitting gigs in her spare time, she and her husband Joseph would probably have kids of their own by now. Instead, she's working on that bachelor's and managing her student loans.
JOHNSON: It's close to $20,000. It's 250 a month.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Millions of millennials are in this situation right now. Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center says the real impact of these loans for those with no degree isn't even on how much money you make, it's on your overall wealth.
RICHARD FRY: Some college-educated household that doesn't have the student debt, their net worth is about 10, $11,000, OK? As opposed to that, for the ones that are still sort of servicing their student debt, they have a net worth of about a grand. So you're looking at about a 10-fold difference.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He says households with student loans also tend to have other kinds of debt - credit card debt, car payments.
JOHNSON: We've done payday loans and you know, it just - it gets out of control.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Noelle Johnson again.
JOHNSON: We had so much more in savings but we had to put a lot of it toward school.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Savings, earnings, debt - all going towards tuition. That means lots of students have to make calculations. Draw school out so there's time to save up and put yourself at risk for dropping out altogether, or take on more student loan debt.
JOHNSON: I took out too much so I had to say, well, I can't, you know, take out any more loans and definitely don't have the cash for it. So I have to stop and then save and then pay for that semester, and then do that all over again.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Noelle Johnson started out at community college undecided on a major. She switched schools. She had to move home when she got it ill. Plus all that starting and stopping, put together, she's been working towards her degree for nine years.
FRY: Most people who are going to finish bachelor's degrees, they've got them by age 30.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Richard Fry of Pew says the important thing is not how long it takes you to finish, but whether you end up with that degree after all.
FRY: For a bachelor's degree, you're looking at at least an extra 6, $800,000 over a working life compared to if you'd stopped at high school. College is expensive but it's a good investment.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Noelle Johnson has a plan to get to graduation.
JOHNSON: My job does have a tuition reimbursement program which is great, but that means I do need to be able to pay first so we're just working on getting some money together so I can pay for my next semester and then it will be reimbursed.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In a year-and-a-half she should have her degree in nonprofit management.
JOHNSON: I know that having my degree is definitely going to make the difference. It's going to do everything for us.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says she really wants to be successful and she needs that bachelor's degree to get where she wants to go.
Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say that Noelle Johnson makes about $10,000 more than the national average for people with some college education and that young college graduates make an average $58,000 a year. The story should have said that the median income for households led by young adults with some college education is about $34,000. And it should have said households led by young college graduates have a median income of about $58,000.]
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